Is Your Boss in Your Way?

Every supervisor knows that the politically correct attitude is one of encouraging the development of their ambitious, hard-working, hi-potential subordinates, giving them visibility, helping management see their work, notice their potential. So why doesn’t this always happen?

We all want to be noticed, heard, understood, and recognized. And we want to know we’re being noticed in this way by those whose opinion we care most about. In the workplace this includes not only our boss, but our boss’s boss and superiors. This is equally true of those who make a show of seeking attention and those who are more reserved or inhibited about calling attention to themselves.  

Although research from the past 10 years suggests that men are more likely to be seekers of this kind of attention, I believe gender research often trails social realities. Among the professional segment of the workforce today, it’s safe to say this is a virtually universal and ubiquitous phenomenon.  

So, what’s the best way to address your understandable interest in being seen, noticed, and recognized for the value you’re able to contribute to the business? And what’s the role of your boss in helping you with this goal? Or, are there some of you who’ve discovered that your boss is actually part of the problem, that he or she may be blocking your ability to be seen? 

The Obvious Approach

Put it in your development plan! Before that, it may be raised in discussion with your direct supervisor. He or she might welcome your interest and even join you in figuring out ways to get your work and contributions noticed. Let something you are doing become the occasion for meeting superiors who have reason to care about the impact and results of that work.  

This is certainly the more natural means of pursuing your aims. Even those of us who are a bit more inhibited and unlikely to do as well with schmoozing and networking can rally some measure of social confidence when talking about our work (rather than about ourselves). Even if one is a bit anxious, that feeling will be easily dismissed if his or her substantive contributions carry the day.  

Alas, not all managers are quite as skilled or inclined to help the ambitious up-and-comer design this kind of strategy and help execute it. Some supervisors continue to identify so closely with the work that they have trouble stepping back to let their subordinates shine. And some are equally or more eager to grab the attention of superiors, so it’s hard for them to share “time in the sun.”  

That doesn’t mean that this cannot change. I believe that some supervisors would be happy to help if they knew how, and if their own needs were safeguarded. This is simply human psychology — some of us are readier than others to play this role. Getting better takes learning. But isn’t this kind of a catch 22? How can a supervisor lacking this self-awareness break out of their constraints?  

Enter the Savvy HR Executive

Notice that I say “executive.” For an HR manager to intervene in the way I’ll describe, they’ll need to be mature, have credibility with senior leaders, and be able to manage the essential subtleties of the process. Let me describe this approach a bit more concretely.  

First, a talented HR executive (could be a director, VP, or even manager by title — credibility is the key), will usually have a sense of who the supervisors are who may be most vulnerable to blocking visibility of high-potential direct reports. They’re often those who are most eager to get attention themselves. So, the HR executive is likely to know where to look for those who may not be getting their “day in the sun.” 

Second, this HR executive is also better able to find ways to get face time with prospective up-and-comers for any number of reasons. And they are able to recognize how their work might be of interest to senior leaders — what distinguishes the person’s approach to the work and suggests potential for doing more. This will usually be enough for the HR executive to target the right senior leader. 

Finally, the HR executive is able to prepare the senior leader for a skip-level conversation with the aspiring professional. There are always new “programs” that we can gin up in HR, so this individual attention can be framed as being part of a larger program. That way, the supervisor of this individual does not need to feel singled out. Indeed, he or she can indeed be included in some recognition later for his or her role in developing the person.  

But What If I’m the Up-and-Comer Impatiently Waiting?

My suggestion is that if you are concerned that you are not getting enough opportunity to get noticed by senior leadership, you should try going to HR yourself. But do this only after you’ve tried to work things out with your boss for a reasonable period of time. He or she may be sincerely interested and able, but he or she may not think it’s the right time. They may know something you don’t know. 

But after giving it a reasonable amount of time and effort, it is appropriate to go to HR to discuss this concern. The HR person may want to better understand what’s going in your department and may need to learn a bit more about you and your reasons for wanting more exposure at this time. There do need to be business-relevant criteria for orchestrating this kind of developmental experience and making it timely and worthwhile for all parties involved. 

What you don’t want to do is sit privately for too long with your frustrated desires for getting noticed. If the work you are doing and have done warrants notice and attention, and if you’re eager to learn more about how this work is viewed by senior management, there’s probably a way to do it. And this is where HR can really be helpful. It’s their job to do this kind of thing, and to do it thoughtfully.   

Done the right way, it’s a win for everyone involved!

Psychotherapy or Coaching?

Coaching and psychotherapy, what’s the difference? Why choose one over the other? What is it that I need or could most benefit from now?

All good questions for those who’ve come to notice a personal need for help. And as a psychologist who provides both kinds of service I do have an opinion. I believe it’s a question of depth, that is, how deeply the needs concern our fundamental sense of identity, well-being, and confidence.

When the Answer is Coaching

Coaching is responsive to the normal needs we encounter to learn, grow, and adapt in the course of our role-taking at work and outside of work. These needs arise in the form of problems that concern our efficacy and readiness as an agent and actor, perhaps accompanied by signs of struggle. Usually its not only we, but also others - our supervisor, spouse, and co-workers - who recognize our needs for help. They might be characterized as needs for perspective, insight, and feedback, something that helps us clarify the true nature of the problem at hand.

Coaching is an intervention that promotes adaptive development in times of change and challenge. A coach, particularly a psychologically trained coach, provides the reflective pause and assessment (of self and situation) we need to figure things out and develop new ways of thinking, acting, and interacting. Others (e.g., mentors) may also be involved to promote skill building and help us hone our judgment. It’s an example of organizational capacity building, which aims to bolster the productive capacity to perform and generate results.

In some cases, coaching is used to support development of high-potential employees who are being deployed in “stretch assignments.” It’s also used to help managers or executives who are struggling. In the latter case, the aim is to avert failure and get talented persons back on track. Depending upon how long these struggles persist, a person may experience declines in their capacities to meet expectations and reverse the trajectory of performance. Growing levels of stress, strain, and fatigue can undermine confidence. In some cases, this creates a deeper kind of need for help.

When Psychotherapeutic Help is Indicated

The same person who is a candidate for coaching - typically a high-potential professional or executive - can also be a candidate for psychotherapy. The problems that call for psychotherapy may originate at work or outside the workplace. But they run deeper and tend to impact all aspects of a person’s life and relationships. It’s what happens when chronic patterns of stress and strain persist, and when our efforts to adapt and “get a handle on things” fail. It wreaks havoc on our confidence and leaves us feeling discouraged, even hopeless.

These problems transcend the usual role-based challenges addressed by coaching. That’s not to say that there is no connection between these problems and the role-based challenges that can stimulate growth. But, as the Challenge-Development Curve below suggests, beyond a certain point (the “inflection point”) we can be overwhelmed by challenges, our coping resources (cognitive, emotional, social, and practical) can be depleted. At that point we can experience the downward spiral of “decompensation.” We become more intensely distressed, confused, and our sense of self-efficacy is shaken.

12-18 Challenge-Development Curve with Ref Pause.jpg

At this point, we may be entering mood disorder territory (persistent feelings of depression or anxiety). At the root of these conditions is fear and the avoidance of that which we fear. This is when any “chinks in our armor” will be revealed. These kind of fears and insecurities usually operate outside our conscious awareness, which grants them unchecked power to close off whole domains of experience, insight, and adaptive action. This kind of fear steals our joy and make us brittle. But as remote and confusing as these fears may feel, they are discoverable and amenable to resolution in psychotherapy. 

Implications for Action

Now, let’s set this discussion in context. How might persons in your organization or your family be struggling with role-based challenges to perform? Are they able to freely and openly process their feelings and needs for support with others who can help? Do they know how to access and use the resources available to them? Are their struggles beginning to show? Are they seeming less able, more frustrated or confused? Have you broached the discussion of coaching? Or do you believe that they may need something more, perhaps they are a candidate for psychotherapy?

Because of the way coaching has grown, there are many kinds of coaches. Some offer specialized advice based on industry-specific or function-specific experience and expertise. Although they may use 360 feedback tools or other style-based assessments, their primary qualifications center on practical problem solving. Others are trained as psychologists or at least have advanced training in psychologically relevant approaches to adult learning and development in an organizational context. But even these may not be the right professional to help someone whose needs run a bit deeper and call for psychotherapeutic help.

It was estimated over 30 years ago that 10-15% of people presenting for coaching may be experiencing “clinical” issues - the severity and/or chronicity of their distress qualifies them for clinical care. If anything, that estimate is probably low given changes in the workplace in the intervening time. So, I’d recommend that that HR leaders, managers, and spouses and partners normalize the practice of addressing these deeper needs at critical moments in our lifetime. In most major cities you’ll find psychologists or other mental health professionals who do this work, who understand this population and their environment. It should be a normal part of our approach to wellness and self care!

Confidence in Professional Couples

It’s neither magic nor mystery. Confidence, properly understood, is a strength of character. It’s not inborn, it’s cultivated in the person within a social context. The first context is one’s family of origin. It’s further developed as life expands outside the home to school and the workplace. And then ultimately, it’s cultivated within the intimate dynamics of a healthy and adaptive couple’s relationship.

 As a virtue, confidence involves both inner feelings and outer expressions of sympathy, empathy, humility, authenticity, and moral truth. These are social and emotional sensitivities and sensibilities that attune us to others and to our direct experience. Perhaps you wonder about the meaning of “moral truth” in this context. How does truth fit or apply in the context of other more affective terms?  

The truth I have in mind when I speak of moral truth is the felt truth through which we know and affirm values. It’s an intuitive way of knowing without which we would not be fully human. It’s the quiet center of an equanimous mind that is able to recognize what is good, right, proper, and appropriate. It helps us separate the wheat from the chaff in discursive reasoning. 

Strictly rational-logical thought is not sufficient for producing the quality of reasonableness we associate with wisdom and good judgment. So, the confidence I am addressing, runs deeper than the confidence I have in my technical skills (intellectual, social, or physical). We might better differentiate that more technical form of confidence as competence, even a certain kind of self-efficacy.  

Confidence as Moral Substrate

In a committed couple’s relationship, what are we committed to? Of course, it’s the bond, the special “we” that we claim to be. We are committed to a relationship of care, mutual concern, and love. Care is an act. Mutual concern is an attitude. Love is a kind of self-surrender, or as Frost put it, “less than two but more than one.” Intimacy then is the art of preserving this attention to the two and the one


And what makes this discussion specific to professional couples? It’s not that these themes are exclusively relevant to them. They’re equally if differently relevant for all couples. The specific relevance for professional couples is perhaps more due to my experience, which is mostly with professionals.

In brief, confidence for in professional couple is distinctive in the occasions that call for its proper expression. It’s when I assert my aspirational energies of becoming (ambitions) while keeping fidelity to my duties of care for my partner and the life we share. For love to be abiding, it requires acts of care. 

For acts of care to be sufficient and appropriate they must be informed by a mindful state of mutual concern. These kinds of concern must bear the mark of the goals and ways of being that normatively define the life we share. And these considerations become complicated in the course of pursuing our careers and living our lives as professionals and as a family.  

Confidence, as a moral substrate, is the sense of assuredness we have that our roles, goals, and ways of being are healthy and adaptive – i.e., they are working for both and for all of us. When this confidence is shaken, we’ll know it first through our feelings: “Life is feeling too difficult, stressful, imbalanced.” Minor perturbations, of course, are natural. But when the troubled feelings persist and begin dividing us, we lose confidence. But when we face our situation and work through it, we regain confidence.  

Confidence is Moral, Not Moralistic

Being moralistic toward one another is being too ready to judge one another. It’s a negative judgment about the person, whereas being moral about our issues is to invoke a values-based mindset and an attitude of reflection. From this attitude, we first seek to notice the felt sources of pain, strain, and loss. We treat these noticed feelings (observations) as data that help us trace a path to the causes of pain. We see, in this way, paired with the issues, the opportunities for adaptive change. 

It can be particularly important to notice our individual fears and insecurities, the things we grasp most tightly for fear of losing. These feelings can grow as we become divided by changing circumstances and as we fail to check our alignment through the intimate dialogue that reinvigorates mutual concern. In this context, moral is the antithesis of moralistic. Moral is suspending the aggressive-defensive impulses that cause moralistic judgment. It’s the openness in our hearts for noticing what, not whom, is lacking.           

Getting Away and Coming Home

Like others, I find it invigorating to get away. But I find that, for me, getting away is also a different way of coming home. I was reminded of this as I was getting away while reading this morning. Let me explain.  

I’ll be going to England at the end of the month for a few days of professional development in South Yorkshire. I’ve been working hard with little time away from my professional practice except for the recent holiday season. So, I decided that I’d bookend the business purposes of my travel with a few days in London before and after. While in London, more specifically, Bloomsbury, I’ll very likely spend my time in used book stores, coffee shops, and my favorite tavern. All involving foot travel and taking the longer route to my destination.  

Away? Yes, I’ll be away, but I’ll also be coming home in the way Marcus Aurelius (Stoic philosopher, 121-180 AD) might have conceived it. I quote at length here from the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius:

Men seek retreats for themselves, houses in the country, sea-shores, and mountains; and thou too art wont to desire such things very much. But this is altogether a mark of the most common sort of men, for it is in thy power whenever thou shalt choose to retire into thyself. For nowhere either with more quiet or more freedom from trouble does a man retire than into his own soul, particularly when he has within him such thoughts that by looking into them he is immediately in perfect tranquility; and I affirm that tranquility is nothing else than the good ordering of the mind. Constantly then give to thyself this retreat, and renew thyself; and let thy principles be brief and fundamental, which as soon as thou shalt recur to them, will be sufficient to cleanse the soul completely, and to send thee back free from all discontent with the things to which thou returnest. (Book Four, Meditations)

I believe that part of the getting away that I seek in my travel to England involves being a stranger in a strange land. The people I meet and engage with meet me for the first time with no presuppositions, and I meet them as I choose to relate to them at the time, unencumbered by any expectations. And beyond the structured social context of my professional activities, lay wonderful anonymity. 

Being among people, many people, diverse peoples, there are no requirement to do much of anything beyond honoring the merest social norms in my social transactions. For me, there is “nowhere either more quiet or free” than that. Of course, I speak as an admittedly philosophically-oriented introvert. But I, like Marcus Aurelius and a later Scottish philosopher influenced by him, Adam Smith, do not spend my time away focused on myself or on self-interest. Sound paradoxical?  

I find meaning in that which lies beyond me, that to which I relate as a part, a part who finds fulfillment in being a part of that something beyond me. Yes, I refer to something spiritual, but not simply spirit. It’s the spirit of embodied human kind, living with other species in a natural world that predates and preceded me and that will exist after I’m gone. I enjoy being the speck of humanity that I am and being related to so much more that is beautiful and good.  

It is reuniting with that greater realm of spirit in my own quiet and peculiar ways that enables me to rejoin the whole of humanity and our busy, buzzing world with kindness, mindfulness, and a readiness to offer compassionate and practical care. Whatever virtue I bring to my work as the speck of humanity that I am, is greatly revitalized by coming home in this way – whether that involves a trip abroad or, what is more common, a brief respite and reading of poetry or philosophy.  

For reading in this way is not a private intellectual act, not at all. It is for me a communion with others who have come before, many of whom in their own ways have also sought a connection to the whole. So, reading is dialogue for me, and I am pleased to play a quieter role of listening, processing, and gratefully receiving the thoughts and ideas that others share. What a wonder life is! That we minded creatures live short lives but connect across time and create history.

The Interpersonal Circumplex

Graphical representations of human behavior, especially interpersonal behavior, can be very helpful in coaching and psychotherapy, within and outside the consultation room. They become an image in our mind that can help guide our actions. The graphic I share today is one that I use frequently with couples, but also in teams, The Interpersonal Circumplex.

The Interpersonal Circumplex as adapted by J. Kim Penberthy (2016)

The Interpersonal Circumplex as adapted by J. Kim Penberthy (2016)

What it Represents

The Interpersonal Circumplex (IC) represents expressed behavior in two-dimensional space. The vertical axis locates behavior on a dimension of dominant/submissive qualities, while the horizontal axis locates us on a dimension of friendly/hostile behavior.

The IC not only helps us differentiate the behavior we express towards others. It also indicates the response that we are likely to elicit from others. Dominance will "pull" for a submissive response, and vice versa, submissiveness pulls for dominant. But it works differently with friendly and hostile behavior. Friendly and hostile pull for like behavior.

Thus, we could characterize a proper assertive quality of behavior as falling within the upper right quarter, to the friendly and respectful side from an affective standpoint, but from the dominant region in the top of the IC. The closer the behavior is to 12 o'clock while remaining in the friendly half of the IC, the more declarative or direct it is. If our tone takes on a harsher quality, we might describe it as sliding over to to the 10 or 11 o'clock position.

If we assert ourselves verbally and/or nonverbally from the dominant-hostile area, we can expect that we're likely to evoke a response from the hostile-submissive area. Similarly, if we assert a dominant-friendly tone, we will likely invite a friendly-submissive (agreeable) quality of response. The part of the IC we have not yet addressed is the Neutral box in the middle. Let's do that now.

Meeting in the Middle

I will often refer to the Neutral zone on the IC after I have intervened to arrest escalating patterns of conflict. As things heat up, I might first interrupt the back-and-forth with an observation of what I see happening: He/she is raising their voice, flushing with emotional intensity, and expressing a harsh or critical tone, and in response the other person is rolling his/her eyes or using other nonverbal behavior while remaining quiet.

By now, you should be able to plot these two sets of behavior, one in the hostile-dominant area and the other is in the hostile-submissive area. And as we all know from experience - yes, my wife and I can get stuck here too - this pattern of conflict can be difficult to halt once it's begun. And here is where the presence of a skilled third party and proper use of the Neutral zone can pay off.

As I interrupt and offer feedback on what I see, they pause the escalating pattern of conflict. We then notice, without placing blame, that this way of relating to one another is not working. In taking notice, we are moving toward the center of the IC. The grip and amplitude of chronic behavioral routines are weakening. We achieve a greater sense of calm and distance from the heat of battle - we're entering the Neutral zone.

A finer-grained view of behavior on the Circumplex

A finer-grained view of behavior on the Circumplex

Concluding Comments

Neither the Interpersonal Circumplex nor my use of it with couples is a silver bullet. But it's helpful in getting us all on the same page, understanding how things go off the rails, and what it feels like in our body and emotional reaction as the wheels begin to wobble. It's also helpful in prompting us to consider - once we're in the Neutral zone - what kinds of behavior could help us get back on track and communicate in the friendly side of the IC.

It's hard to make change in our habitual patterns of behavior without having some sense of what the alternative looks like in concrete behavioral terms. And it's helpful to have a simple message in mind - especially outside of therapy - that can invite us to "meet in the middle," in the Neutral zone in order to create a calming and reflective pause. Only then can we exercise freedom in choosing our behavior rather than acting on auto pilot.

Of course each partner in a couple brings his or her own tendencies of personality and interpersonal style to the relationship. They shape what we expect and perceive and what we express. Some help and some hinder. And there’s room for misunderstanding. But when we keep our eye on the goal and the concrete behaviors that will realize the goal, we discover that we're more able to change than it may have seemed. Change is about learning. Confidence grows from practicing the new more adaptive behaviors we learn.